By Yarone Arbel
When Israel and the F.Y.R of Macedonia take the court today in Group A in Poznan a lot of emotions will be involved.
This game is most probably a win-or-die situation for both sides, and the attached feelings are obvious, yet for the team from Skopje revenge is also on the line.
The closer memory is from 2007 when the teams met in the Additional Qualifying Tournament for EuroBasket and Israel won 92-87 behind 26 points by Yotam Halperin who missed only one shot the entire game, and 15 by Lior Eliyahu.
The team from Jerusalem was on top throughout most of the game, and deserved to win. The first encounter between the teams is a different story.
A bit more than ten years ago, on June 23rd 1999, F.Y.R of Macedonia played their first ever EuroBasket.
They were drawn in Group A with Israel and on the last day faced the white-and-blue team with both sides carrying two losses.
The winner would have continued to the next phase, while the loser's destiny was the horrifying 13-16 classification games.
Petar Naumoski, the greatest player in the history of basketball in F.Y.R of Macedonia, got injured already after 11 minutes and had to leave the court, to an injury that post factum he never 100% recovered from.
It came down to the last play when Israel scored with the buzzer to win 64-62 and keep the team-mates of Naumoski winless.
Today, in the same Group A of the same EuroBasket competition, ten years later, the same teams are ready to battle for the same goal - avoiding an early end to the competition.
In order to make history and write their first ever win in EuroBasket history, in the perfect timing F.Y.R of Macedonia will relay on Vrbica Stefanov.
The 36-year-old point guard is the perfect example to how big EuroBasket is for the national team players.
Stefanov started the past season in the top league in Europe - ACB of Spain.
After several games he decided he had enough of basketball and returned to his native country, announcing his retirement, with one exception.
"I wanted to quit playing the game, but decided I won't give up on playing with the national team in EuroBasket," he tells in an interview with eurobasket2009.org.
"It was very important for me to play in this big event with my team, where I'm the captain also, so I decided to postpone my final retirement for a few months."
Very few cases, if any, are like that in the history of the top level.
Stefanov didn't actually play the game for almost a year, and he's not looking for a team for next season.
"Even if a good offer will come now, I won't take it, as I have made up my mind on retirement," he says.
Nevertheless EuroBasket remained a priority, and a goal he didn't consider for a second to miss.
"I did a lot of jogging, and practiced with myself to stay in shape the whole time," he reveals.
"We had 12 preparation games before coming here and it's enough for me to get back in shape.
"Now I'm ready to bring it to the court."
Stefanov was there in 1999 and actually had to take over once Naumoski got injured.
He finished the game with 14 points and eight assists to bring his team so close to glory.
"I remember that game like it was yesterday. I remember the injury of Petar and that last shot of Oded Kattash for Israel in the last seconds - two unlucky situations that cost us the game," he shares.
He was there also two years ago when Israel grabbed the last ticket to EuroBasket on his team's account.
"Every time we play against Israel it goes to the last minutes," he says remembering the 23 points game he had in 2007.
"I hope today it will be our turn to win. Maybe as they say the third time is the lucky time, it will work for us this way."
When asked what did Israel do better then them so far in those clutch games it shows Stefanov has spent time thinking of the subject, and shoots a quick straight answer.
"They play better defense, have very good system in offense, always fight and stay focused.
"Those are the type of things we need to do as well," he tells.
"We can't allow ourselves another bad start as we had yesterday against Greece. We played without energy, but it also gave us time to recover for today's game.
"Today is the most important game for us."